Backslide of democracy in West Africa

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The African continent, often characterized as the world’s most impoverished and underdeveloped, finds itself on the precipice of yet another potential conflict. The deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for the leaders of the coup in Niger to relinquish power and reinstate the government of Mohamed Boazoumhas has elapsed without compliance.

Recent reports indicate that ECOWAS is making preparations for a military intervention in Niger, with commitments from Nigeria and Senegal to contribute troops. This coup follows a series of similar military takeovers in other ECOWAS member countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, as well as an attempted coup in Guinea Bissau, all transpiring within the past three years.

Africa has, unfortunately, experienced a disproportionately high number of coup d’├ętat attempts, totaling 214 since 1950, surpassing any other region globally. Over 90% of African nations have encountered such attempts, successful or otherwise. Thus, coups have historically been more of a norm than an anomaly in Africa’s political landscape. Even considering this historical context, West Africa stands out for its prevalence of coups. Most West African countries, with certain exceptions, are situated within the Sahel region. Stretching from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east, the Sahel has been a hotbed of violence and humanitarian crises in recent decades.

The Sahel region has been plagued by various jihadist groups since the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, following the NATO-led intervention in the country. This power vacuum led to the proliferation of weaponry and armed militants across the region, resulting in the emergence of extremist organizations like Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), among others.

Consequently, the Sahel accounted for 43 percent of global terrorism-related deaths in 2022, as per the Global Terrorism Index. The inability of governments to effectively counter these terrorist groups has often provided a pretext for military takeovers, as exemplified by the 2012 coup in Mali and the ongoing crisis in Niger.

A contributing factor to West Africa’s susceptibility to military coups is its weak governance and governmental instability. Nations such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have consistently ranked poorly in international indices measuring political stability and governance over the past years. Indices like the Fragile State Index, Human Development Index, and World Bank Governance Indicators highlight this instability. Corruption is endemic within the region, with prevalent forms including embezzlement of public funds, coercion, undue influence, nepotism, and manipulation of national institutions.

This has facilitated the institutionalization of smuggling, trafficking, and other forms of transnational organized crime. Widespread perception of government corruption has eroded trust in state entities. This erosion is exacerbated by the hybrid nature of governance in these countries, where domestic political control is often offset by international influences, whether from foreign governments, businesses, or non-governmental organizations.

The trajectory of government overthrow and authoritarian takeovers in West Africa is poised to worsen under the looming specter of climate change.

Projections suggest that temperatures in the region could rise by 2.5 to 4.3 degrees Celsius by 2080. Such increases would devastate agricultural and pastoral sectors, aggravating food insecurity. The iconic Lake Chad, bordering Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, has already shrunk by a staggering 90%. The resulting climate migration, alongside diminishing land and water resources, has intensified conflicts between farming, herding, and fishing communities.

These conflicts exacerbate feelings of discontent with governance and are exploited by extremist groups to advance their agendas. The convergence of these factors has created fertile ground for what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres terms an “epidemic of coup d’├ętats”.

According to the Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom Index, only two out of fifteen nations in West Africa can be classified as “free” and actively practicing democratic norms: Ghana and Cape Verde. It’s therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the third wave of democracy, which emerged after the Cold War, has receded in this region.

The revival of democracy in West Africa necessitates dialogue among various factions and the restoration of public trust in democratic principles and state institutions. Consequently, sanctions and confrontational rhetoric from external actors might yield more harm than good in the long run.

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